Campus & Community

Players Make Cancer Battle a Team Effort Student-athletes respond to Delaney-Smith’s openness in her fight with breast cancer

8 min read
Courtney Egelhoff '00 cuts Kathy Delaney-Smith's hair shortly after Delaney-Smith's first chemotherapy treatment and the day before she was fitted for a wig. Photo by Jon Chase.

Courtney Egelhoff leaned in close, her face just inches from her coach’s blonde, shoulder-length hair. Intent with concentration, Egelhoff combed and snipped. Combed and snipped some more.

The scene was a bit unusual and strangely intimate. Five players and coaches were gathered in the Women’s Basketball Office in Lavietes Pavilion. Head Coach Kathy Delaney-Smith sat on a chair in the middle of the red-carpeted room. A white towel was spread under the chair and another draped over her shoulders to catch the hair as it fell from Egelhoff’s scissors.

Better to cut it now before it fell out on its own.

“I will lose my hair shortly,” Delaney-Smith had said the previous afternoon. “It’s a matter of hours. I’ll lose it in huge masses. Resoundingly, everyone says shave it.”

Delaney-Smith, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in December, is in the midst of a course of chemotherapy, in which powerful drugs are administered intravenously. The drugs attack growing cells in the body and are given in hopes they’ll kill any cancer cells missed in surgery. Hair loss is an unfortunate side-effect.

Asking one of her players to cut her hair is just one way Delaney-Smith is involving the team in her challenge. Delaney-Smith decided shortly after she heard the diagnosis to be open about her disease, both in hopes of educating the broader public about breast cancer and in hopes of having an impact on her players.

“Possibly one of them will have to deal with it themselves someday,” Delaney-Smith said. “I don’t know that this is best for me, but if I wasn’t public, there’d be more fear, more shock, more concern.”

That’s not to say there wasn’t fear – or even a few tears – when the team found out about the illness. Though Delaney-Smith’s prognosis is good, more than 40,000 women are projected to die from breast cancer this year, and some team members have had little experience with a serious illness.

“I’ve never had sickness in my family or in my close friends. It was definitely a scary shock that something like this can happen to someone so close,” said team captain Laela Sturdy, a senior forward. “If I ever have to deal with anything as hard as this in my life I hope I can handle it as well as she has.”

A Close Family

Part of the reason for the shock is the closeness of the extended family Delaney-Smith has created in her 18 years as a coach. Several players said the team acts as their family at school, and Delaney-Smith a parent away from home.

“I feel very close to her,” Sturdy said. “After being here for four years, she’s our mom at school.”

Though winning is important to Delaney-Smith, Assistant Coach Patricia Brown said Delaney-Smith doesn’t lose sight of the fact that players have lives off the court.

“She has an incredible knack for putting things in perspective,” Brown said. “She wants an incredible commitment to this Division I program, but doesn’t lose sight of the person in front of the player.”

That may be because Delaney-Smith sees her role as that of an educator, not just as a groomer of athletic talent. Many players have told her they learned as much on the court as they have in the classroom.

“I have always, always, always considered playing a sport at the university level as part of an education,” Delaney-Smith said.

Watching Delaney-Smith deal with her cancer is just part of the life experience students are gathering under her tutelage. Delaney-Smith said she is with players so often, it would be difficult to avoid talking about classes, boyfriends, and other off-court situations.

“I’m probably with my student-athletes more than anyone else at Harvard. They are with me six days a week for four years. Whether I want to or not, I have a n impact,” Delaney-Smith said.

Team members aren't shy about showing affection for their coach and mentor. Photo by Jon Chase.

At least part of that impact is because of Delaney-Smith’s communication skills, and the fact that she pays attention to the entire team, not just the stars, according to Assistant Coach Brown.

“The key to her success as a motivator is her ability to communicate with her players,” Brown said. “She really takes the time to communicate with each kid, all 15 players, not just starters.”

Brown should know. Brown, who graduated from Harvard in 1987, was a member of Delaney-Smith’s first recruiting class and played for Delaney-Smith for four years. Having grown up in Norwood, Mass., Brown said she had heard of Delaney-Smith’s winning ways at Westwood High School.

“I knew of Kathy. She was a legend in women’s basketball. One of the attractions to coming here was the opportunity to play for her,” Brown said. “I found the perfect coach for me.”

Several current players said Delaney-Smith is one of the reasons they’re at Harvard today. Not only does she have a reputation as a winner, she has a personable, comfortable personality and a sense of humor she has wielded as a weapon in her battle against breast cancer.

“She’s very open with our team. She jokes about [her cancer] a lot,” said Lisa Kowal, a junior guard. “I look at my problems and they’re nothing compared to this. She’s very concerned about everyone else but herself. If something bad ever happens to me, I’d definitely look to her for inspiration.”

A Two-Way Street

The team’s closeness and Delaney-Smith’s openness about her disease have created a two-way street between the players and their coach. Delaney-Smith is sharing a difficult and personal experience with team members, and team members are, in turn, giving back their emotional support.

Egelhoff, a senior guard who acts as something of a team hairdresser, said she understood that tri mming her coach’s hair was more than just a haircut. It was important to Delaney-Smith to take that step surrounded by those she is close to.

“I think it was a way to make it easier for her,” Egelhoff said later. “I’m learning you can do anything you set your mind to. I would never have believed someone could coach a basketball team while having chemotherapy.”

Players haven’t noticed any changes in the way Delaney-Smith has coached this season and said the normalcy on the court may help her handle the disease.

“When she steps into the gym, the important thing is whether we box out and run the lane, that helps her forget,” said team captain Sturdy. “I had a lot of respect for Kathy before and it has quadrupled since I’ve seen how she’s handled this.”

Delaney-Smith has striven for as normal a season as possible. And after six Ivy League titles in 18 years, that means a winning one. The team ended its season with a loss at Dartmouth on Tuesday, but compiled a 16-10 record for the season, going 9-6 in the Ivy League.

Digging Deep

Though students haven’t noticed a difference in Delaney-Smith’s day-to-day demeanor, Delaney-Smith has. She said her energy level isn’t as high as she is used to and that some days are more difficult than others.

The fatigue and nausea from the chemotherapy can last for days, but Delaney-Smith has missed just a handful of practices and has yet to miss a game. That sometimes means coaching when she feels less than 100 percent.

“I found with the second chemo and traveling, I really had to dig deep,” Delaney-Smith said after a recent road trip to Brown University. “We lost on Friday night. Whenever I lose, I figure out what I could have done differently as a coach. Was I not verbal enough? I questioned whether I was good for the team that week.”

Delaney-Smith’s determination to carry on despite her illness is perfectly in character, said Brown, who’s been her assistant coach for eight years. Persevering when you’re tired or sick is part of what she passes on to her players.

“I think it’s just the way she’d handle any situation in life: with humor and a very determined, matter-of-fact attitude – this is the competition and this is what we have to do to defeat it,” Brown said.